All true absinthes are bitter to some degree (due to the presence of absinthin, extracted from the wormwood) and are therefore usually served with the addition of sugar. This not only counters the bitterness, but in well made absinthes seems also to subtly improve the herbal flavour-profile of the drink.
The classic French absinthe ritual involves placing a sugar cube on a flat perforated absinthe spoon, which rests on the rim of the glass containing a measure or “dose” of absinthe. Iced water is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, which gradually dissolves and drips, along with the water, into the absinthe, causing the green liquor to ‘louche’ (“loosh”) into an opaque opalescent white as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Usually three to four parts water are added to one part of 68% absinthe. Historically, true absintheurs used to take great care in adding the water, letting it fall drop by single drop onto the sugar cube, and then watching each individual drip cut a milky swathe through the peridot-green absinthe below. Seeing the drink gradually change colour was part of its ritualistic attraction.
One of the most evocative of all descriptions of the absinthe ritual is in Marcel Pagnol‘s “The Time of Secrets”:
“The poet’s eyes suddenly gleamed.
Then, in deep silence, began a kind of ceremony.
He set the glass – a very big one – before him, after inspecting its cleanliness. Then he took the bottle, uncorked it, sniffed it, and poured out an amber coloured liquid with green glints to it. He seemed to measure the dose with suspicious attention for, after a careful check and some reflection,
he added a few drops.
He next took up from the tray a kind of small silver shovel, long and narrow, in which patterned perforations had been cut.
He placed this contrivance on the rim of the glass like a bridge, and loaded it with two lumps of sugar.
Then he turned towards his wife: she was already holding the handle of a ‘guggler’, that is to say a porous earthenware pitcher in the shape of a cock, and he said:
‘Your turn, my Infanta!’
Placing one hand on her hip with a graceful curve of her arm, the Infanta lifted the pitcher rather high, then, with infallible skill, she let a very thin jet of cool water – that came out of the fowls beak – fall on to the lumps of sugar which slowly began to disintegrate.
The poet, his chin almost touching the table between his two hands placed flat on it, was watching this operation very closely. The pouring Infanta was as motionless as a fountain, and Isabelle did not breathe.
In the liquid, whose level was slowly rising, I could see a milky mist forming in swirls which eventually joined up, while a pungent smell of aniseed deliciously refreshed my nostrils.
Twice over, by raising his hand, the master of ceremonies interrupted the fall of the liquid, which he doubtless considered too brutal or too abundant: after examining the beverage with an uneasy manner that gave way to reassurance he signalled, by a mere look, for the operation to be resumed.
Suddenly he quivered and, with an imperative gesture, definitely stopped the flow of water, as if a single drop more might have instantly degraded the sacred potion.”
Antique perforated spoons for use with absinthe are prized collectors items. There are hundreds of variants, some issued to commemorate historic events like the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, some representing intertwined absinthe leaves, others with engraved advertising for one of the famous brands of the day. Almost all have been exhaustively catalogued by Marie Claude Delahaye, the leading French authority on absinthe and absinthiana, and the author of numerous books on the subject.
A more unusual and labour-saving alternative to the perforated spoon was the absinthe ‘brouilleur’, a mixer that sat on top of the glass and held both water and sugar, allowing the sugared water to automatically drip slowly into the glass. Also avidly collected are glasses, carafes, ceramic pitchers and water fountains made specifically for use with the absinthe ritual.
There is some debate amongst absinthe historians as to when exactly the traditional absinthe ritual originated. Certainly, there is no evidence that it was ever normal to drink absinthe neat, without water. Absinthe was drunk with the addition of both water and sugar from at least the 1850’s, and probably earlier. Absinthe was by no means unique in this respect – 19th century drinkers had a far sweeter tooth when it came to alcohol than we have today, and other drinks and cordials were also regularly sweetened with sugar. They were usually served with a long cordial spoon or a kind of swizzle stick, to help dissolve the sugar.
The use of a perforated spoon specifically for absinthe was a later development, which appears to have originated in the 1870’s and only became widespread in the 1880’s and 1890’s. From the 1890’s onwards, it seems, on the evidence of existing engravings and cartoons, that almost all absinthes in bars and cafés were served with a perforated spoon. However most satirical journals and such like reflected
specifically the Parisian scene, and it’s possible that in far flung regions of rural France, the use of special spoons wasn’t widespread. But they certainly were used, to some extent, throughout France and Switzerland, which is why the are found in their thousands throughout the region. The testimony of two elderly Pontissalienne ladies quoted in Benoit Noel‘s book “L’Absinthe Un Mythe Toujours Vert” to the effect that the use of absinthe spoons wasn’t ever common in Pontarlier should be seen in this context, and taken with a grain of salt. Dozens, probably hundreds, of posters and advertising cartons produced in Pontarlier and Couvet show absinthe being served with a perforated spoon. My guess, is that these two old ladies, who would have been small children at the time of the ban, never entered a bar or café – they would only have seen absinthe being drunk at home, where certainly perforated spoons were seldom used.
A popular alternative to using crystalized sugar (une absinthe au sucre) was to add either gum syrup (une absinthe gommée) or liqueur d’anis (une absinthe anisée). Neither of these versions of course required a perforated spoon.
It was perfectly acceptable to drink an absinthe without sugar (une absinthe pure), but, based on all the historical evidence this certainly wasn’t the norm, and there is no publicity material extant from any manufacturer that suggests this was the primary method – it’s always referred to, if at all, as an alternative to the sugared version.
Occasionally absinthe was drunk diluted with other lower strength alcohol – white wine (une absinthe de minuit), or cognac (Toulouse Lautrec’s speciality, un tremblement de terre). But these were very unusual methods, which always aroused special comment, usually disapproving.
Drinking neat absinthe (ie without water), certainly wasn’t usual at any stage, and was never socially acceptable. Where it is referred to, it is always in the context of alcoholism and degradation – in the same way, for instance, as we might refer to someone drinking a neat triple gin today (the equivalent in alcohol content).
Today, modern absinthes are often marketed in conjunction with the so-called Bohemian absinthe ritual. This is not a traditional method, but a modern innovation inspired by the success of flaming sambuca and such like. A shot of absinthe is poured into a glass, and a teaspoonful of sugar is dipped into it. The alcohol soaked sugar is set alight and allowed to burn until it bubbles and caramelises. The spoon of melted sugar is then plunged into the absinthe and stirred in, which usually sets the absinthe itself alight. Ice water is then poured in, dousing the flames. This method, has become increasingly popular, especially since it was shown in the film “Moulin Rouge”, but is a historical travesty, and would have horrified any Belle Epoque absintheur.